Sweat the Small Stuff

In his painting Water Canal, Lei Zhang has embraced my own all-time favorite subject: Venice. In Zhang’s work I sense the same enthusiasm and joy of place that have captured so many artists over the centuries. And he has wisely ignored the urge to encompass the entirety of the Grand Canal, its dozens of marble palaces and the innumerable boats that constantly animate its watery surface. The real Venice is in its secret, smaller canal routes, with their breathtaking touches of intimacy.

Zhang’s graceful strokes of watercolor express an admirable freedom; the painting isn’t excessively rendered, which helps achieve the moodiness Zhang was after. He does a beautiful job evoking the architectural gems of Venice. The collection of window details, the depiction of the unique roof and chimney lines, and the trademark laundry displays are masterfully handled. But some fundamental drawing problems are holding this painting back, and Zhang misses the mark with his treatment of the gondola. A little more attention to these details up front would have given the painting a stronger focus and an even more inviting feel.

Principles At Work
Limiting the landscape. Nature has inflicted upon us a limitation in how much our eyes can take in at a single viewing. We have no inner wide-angle lens—we can comfortably accommodate only what falls within a 60-degree “cone of vision.” Anything beyond that we see only peripherally. So to draw or paint material falling outside that limit can ring a little false.

Such is the case in this painting in the handling of the canal. The outer contours of the waterway are pulled so far down out of the natural range of vision that it comes across as a downhill slope. This extreme angle necessitates a corresponding downward tilt to the gondola, adding to the illusion that both the canal and the boat are about to spill out of the bottom of the picture. Just by cropping the bottom of the painting, Zhang could alleviate this problem.

Building a credible foundation. Notice how the waterline on the left side of the canal has a confusing juncture with that shown to the right of the gondolier’s figure, under the little green bridge. The water also has an unnatural curve next to the building on the left, which needs to be straightened. In addition, take a look at the windows and their reflections in the canals: The scale and placement don’t really correspond. While these may seem like small things, they chip away at the painting’s credibility and distract from its overall quality.

The reflections of the windows also demonstrate the importance of color transference. In portraying smooth-surfaced water and reflected objects, remember that the water itself has a local color. If that color is overlaid with the color of the reflected object, you’ll still want to infuse both colors into the image. In this case, the small buildings behind the bridge are beautifully painted with warm hues. Yet that color is lost in the reflection patterns here.

Understanding “anatomy.” Just as you must have a solid understanding of human anatomy to draw and paint a figure well, you also need a thorough awareness of any subject’s inherent structure to do it justice in your art. The gondola in Water Canal would benefit from more careful drawing, with full attention to its subtle contours.

Gondolas are unique watercrafts in that they’re propelled by one long oar used on only one side of the boat. Because of this, the hull is built on a fore-and-aft curved contour—not straight—to compensate for the one-sided thrust of the single oar. When empty, a gondola rests tilted to the right. The gondolier’s weight on the left side will balance the boat’s stance when in use. All of these things must be accounted for when drawing a gondola, even in a simple treatment, for the sake of the painting’s integrity.

Correcting the composition. Finally, I want to draw your attention to the unfortunate knot being tied in the center of the composition. The strong vertical building edge that ends at the left side of the green bridge is met at that juncture by the line of the bridge itself, the left waterline of the canal, the right-hand contour of the gondolier and the curved linear sweep of the gondola. It all creates a terribly dynamic intersection that ultimately serves no purpose. A simple repositioning of the boat and figure, either to the left or right, would be an excellent improvement. The figure, clear of the coinciding linear thrusts, would then become the positive and clear center of interest.

Taking all of these factors into consideration, I incorporated some of my suggestions in a rough revision of Water Canal (at left). The waterline was redrawn for continuity, passing under the bridge. I cropped the bottom of the painting to do away with the downhill look. To make them more active compositionally with the bridge, the gondola and gondolier were made smaller and moved back and to the right. With respect to Zhang’s desire to create mood, the gondola is now emerging from behind the right-side buildings, to enhance the spatially mysterious quality of the scene. Finally, I took the liberty of planting two gondola stanchions in the water, crossing the left canal waterline. This helps to slow up that straight, high velocity line headed out of the bottom of the picture.

Lessons Learned
The things I’ve discussed here are basic art principles that can truly make or break a painting. I want to stress that I really love the overall impression and quality of Water Canal. I feel that Zhang’s sense of the watercolor medium is flawless. With the correction of some simple drawing errors, I see great potential for this very talented artist.

About the Artist
The spontaneity and excitement of being able to mix watercolor paints directly on paper hooked Maryland artist Lei Zhang nine years ago. Since then he has won several awards for his watercolors and is a signature member of the Alabama Watercolor Society.

Loraine Crouch is associate editor for The Artist’s Magazine and Artist’s Sketchbook.

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